Immigration numbers are still recovering from delays, restrictions created by pandemic
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, like most other countries around the world, Canada implemented strict travel restrictions, starting in March 2020. For many months, nearly all incoming travel was banned, even by Canadian citizens, some of whom became stranded in other countries. These restrictions reduced immigration to a crawl.
In 2019, the year before the pandemic, Canada welcomed 341,000 permanent residents. As worldwide travel restrictions took hold, immigration numbers were cut nearly in half. Canada admitted just 184,500 new permanent residents in 2020.
Following the rollout of vaccinations, restrictions slowly eased. The era of COVID-related travel restrictions was a difficult time for many immigrants and their families. Those hoping to enter Canada faced unforeseen barriers and saw wait times stretch into an uncertain future. Newcomer service groups were there to help.
“We made sure people arriving were protected, safely going into quarantine and following all the rules,” says Jennifer Watts, CEO at the Immigrant Settlement Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS).
Those already here faced other difficulties. “It was challenging for people not used to the medical system here, who didn’t speak English or French as a first language, who didn’t have connections in the community, who may not have had digital literacy skills. It was hard to know if people where getting the information they needed and where they could go for support,” Watts says.
Immigrants were also unable to leave Canada. “People were concerned about what was happening back home and unable to visit someone who got sick.”
At the same time, some did better than others. “I must say, there is a resilience, certainly among refugees who arrived,” Watts says. “They know what hardship is and understand the value of community. They wanted to do the right thing, knowing what the rules are in Canada and making sure they’re following them.”
Watts adds that it’s important to acknowledge the other side of the coin. “Immigrants were often at the forefront of the pandemic, providing essential and front lines services—nurses, doctors, the service industry, continuing care. They helped us get through the pandemic.”
While the pandemic isn’t over, Canada has set new, much higher immigration targets for the next three years: 465,000 in 2023, 485,000 in 2024, and 500,000 in 2025. Several developments, possibly including these new immigration targets, led the government to normalize travel into the country.
As of Oct. 1, 2022, Canada lifted nearly all pandemic health restrictions for anyone entering the country by land, sea, or air. Travelers and immigrants no longer have to provide proof of vaccination or testing. All quarantine and isolation requirements are gone. But because things are changing so quickly, some contradictory information is still around. While proof of vaccination is no longer required, one government website still claims incorrectly, “In most cases, you must qualify as a fully-vaccinated traveler.”
The federal government admits that COVID-19 is continuing to cause disruptions for immigration authorities, even as policies are changing. In August 2022, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said his department continues to recover from serious backlogs and processes crippled by the pandemic. He said then that Canada is still playing catch-up, when it comes to processing temporary residency and citizenship applications.
In the fall Economic and Fiscal Update on Oct. 28, 2022 the federal government announced further measures to clear the backlog and bring on a new era of robust and efficient immigration processing. The feds are investing $85 million in their efforts to get citizenship applications through more quickly, reunite families, and attract skilled immigrants who can ease the country’s labour shortages.
Fraser was hoping for a return to normal by the end of 2022, and his department has already improved upon pre-pandemic wait times. Applicants in the Express Entry lane for skilled immigrants are seeing a six-month waiting period, while those in the family unification lane are waiting 12 months.
“Immigrants have made a conscious, positive choice, so they will follow the rules and regulations as they change,” Watts says. Commenting on the lifting of travel restrictions, she says, “For people who are coming out of a humanitarian crisis, it makes the entry easier. When we’re receiving immigrants and refugees, it relieves our staff of extra work. As restrictions have loosened, it means less paperwork and oversight.”
As a final thought, Watts adds, “Anything that’s going to reduce wait times is fantastic.”